Ranger Rik Penn on his retirement, Buffalo Soldiers' lessons today, and more

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Ranger Rik Penn leads a program with youth at Fort Point in March 2018.

Ranger Fredrick—or Rik—Penn is retiring after 30 years of public service, of which 25 years have been with the National Park Service (NPS). Passionate about storytelling, sharing the history and impact of the Buffalo Soldiers, and increasing visitation to our public lands for all people, Rik sat down with us to reflect on his decades of service.

Tell us about yourself. How long have you been with the park service? What drew you to this line of work initially?

I started in the maintenance division of Muir Woods with the NPS. I realized quickly, however, that I was not good at my first job fixing fences as I stopped work often to share stories with visitors about the redwoods and parks. My supervisor told me it was not my job to share stories while I was on the job. And it wasn’t.

I realized my true passion was in storytelling and started volunteering with the education team. After a year, I was hired to work with the education and interpretation team. It has been 16 years since then and I have been really happy at work.  

In your years as a ranger, how have you seen the demographics of national park visitors change? Has there been change?

I have definitely seen more people of color visit the national parks in the last 20 years but I think we still need to see more change in our visitation demographics. The lack of visitation in our national parks from people of color can be traced back to the history of racial segregation in this country where for 200 years people of color were restricted in their movement and therefore made it difficult for people of color to take their kids to national parks. Repair shops could refuse to service cars and the closest hospital that served people of color could be over 100 miles away from a national park. This directly stopped people of color from building a history of tradition in the outdoors with their families. If you don’t experience that as a child, you grow up to believe that you don’t belong there.

This mentality is definitely changing with younger and older people of color today. But to continue this mental shift we have to think about what makes the national parks relevant to diverse audiences. We may have to take the mountain to the people and expand our roving ranger program at community events.

How do you help make stories like the Buffalo Soldiers relevant and timely in this day and age?

I feel the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers are still relevant and timely today as we are living in a society where many people feel that it is impossible to find the quality of life they would like as economic forces are still stacked against them. Getting a good education without going into great debt. Struggling to buy a house with an affordable mortgage. Acceptable healthcare. All of this was happening during the times of the Buffalo Soldiers as well. Yet, they overcame all of this and become experts in the military field and rise above their situation.

For the Buffalo Soldiers, their lives were made up of a moral dilemma. They were asked to go to the Philippines and Cuba and preach freedom and democracy despite not having that same privilege back in the United States. When you see celebrities of color today protesting what they see as unfair and being treated differently, you realize that this is a continual fight for equality. The protest to form a more perfect union is still going strong.

After this incredible career and all these wonderful stories you’ve shared with countless visitors and school groups, what is next for you?

I love to sing jazz and the blues. I also plan to work with the Peace Education Program in jails and prisons and still find time to visit and volunteer with the NPS.

Any final thoughts on the future of our public lands and your work here?

The same way it can just take one or two people to build a movement, save a park, save an endangered park, it can take one vote at a time to change the amount of support that the national parks receive. If I could say anything to people who come to parks is to always vote for people who support these wonderful public parks and spaces. One vote is a raindrop. But a million votes are a flood.

Veda Banerjee is director, communications & digital marketing for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.